ASK OCE — January 12, 2007 — Vol. 2, Issue 1
Message from the Chief Engineer
The Importance of Getting Our Hands Dirty
By Chris Scolese
This issue examines some of the key elements of NASA's early culture. How did a government agency go from inception to the moon landing in just over ten years? What can we learn from this as NASA faces the challenge presented by the Vision for Space Exploration?
We look at the reflections of Dr. Henry Pohl, a member of NASA's first generation, on why the Apollo program succeeded. Dr. Howard McCurdy, one of the foremost scholars of NASA history, offered a more codified analysis of the agency’s organizational culture in his 1993 book Inside NASA
. Both Pohl and McCurdy emphasized the importance that testing, hands-on experience, and in-house technical capability played in NASA’s early successes. These three elements have a common thread: they allowed practitioners to learn from their experiences.
In engineering, testing is synonymous with learning. Testing allows us to verify a design, identify its features, and establish its margins to failure. We test to poke holes in our designs and learn precisely how, when, and under which conditions they will falter. As Dr. Henry Petroski, professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University, writes in his recent book Success through Failure
, "The failures always teach us more than the successes about the design of things. And thus the failures often lead to redesigns — to new, improved things." Unplanned test failures lead to improved understanding. Accordingly, test plans must trade the risk of test failure against cost and schedule, so the highest risk elements require ample resources early in the lifecycle.
Practically speaking, hands-on experience means intimate familiarity with failure. An engineer who understands failure knows how to read test data, make inferences, and draw conclusions that will result in a successful re-design. Book learning alone cannot teach these skills. Hands-on experience provides the engineer not only with the details of the design being built, but also with a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the design process as a whole.
Hands-on work is inextricably linked with in-house technical capability; NASA's workforce cannot have one without the other. In-house capability gives us expertise and flexibility that we cannot otherwise obtain. It allows us to have informed conversations with suppliers so we can be "smart buyers." It also offers us opportunities to develop new areas of technical expertise, and to test off-nominal situations (those that don't conform to specifications or standards).
The world has changed since the Apollo era, of course. NASA receives far greater scrutiny from Congress, the press, and the public than it did in the 1960s. Similarly, all federal government agencies work under much more rigorous oversight than in the past. Our responsibility to the public is no different than it was forty years ago, but the context has clearly shifted.
This is why it is so critical to dedicate sufficient resources at the appropriate point in a project's lifecycle for testing — so that failures happen in the laboratory, where they are expected, instead of on orbit, where the consequences take on a different magnitude of importance.